Sunday, March 28, 2021

"The End of Industrial Society"

From Palladium Magazine, March 24:

Recognizing the unique signs of a possible civilizational collapse, rather than being blindsided by it, requires a bold thesis as to what the core engine of our civilization is. Without a clear and correct theory of what makes our civilization function, signs of decay will go unnoticed or rationalized, rather than recognized.

Every civilization rests on a core stack of social technology that coordinates and sustains its vital institutions. Social technologies—intentionally designed ways for the people in a society to operate—form the basis of the varied systems of material production and material technology that we see in every society. These social technology cores decay with time as they obsolete their own foundations, and as errors and parasitism build up. This decay can be circumvented, and the decaying core social technologies can be swapped for new ones, but this is a process of immense historical difficulty. What, then, is the core engine of our own civilization, and in what way might it decay? While we lack an incontrovertible answer, the Industrial Revolution appears to be a leading candidate. 

Such a thesis would have been very current during the 19th century and most of the 20th, but today sounds increasingly antiquated. We often define our 21st-century civilization, in opposition to the Industrial Revolution, as “post-industrial.” When the world’s most influential economist borrows the name to argue for a “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he does not characterize it by yet more advanced and productive manufacturing. Instead, he distinguishes it by computer networking, artificial intelligence, and other “emerging technologies.” The seemingly basic association of industry with the mass production of material goods has been severed; factories are treated as evidence of backwardness rather than progress. Simultaneously, we lament the rising power of China, a power substantially if not totally built on old-fashioned industrial strength.

These contradictory attitudes betray the claims about our next stage of societal progress as more wish-fulfillment than impartial certainty. Yet at the same time, despite the popularity of apocalyptic visions of the future, we are certainly not regressing to the kind of agricultural or even tribal societies that characterized the pre-industrial era. A truly “fourth” Industrial Revolution would imply the sudden emergence of a whole new stack of social technologies, unlike any we have seen before. These would form the new core engine of our civilization. Does the “internet of things” really pass this bar? The question answers itself. 

Post-industrial society is neither the next vaunted stage of human progress, nor the prelude to a catastrophic reversion to pre-industrial ways of life. Our social technologies have not been upgraded in the wake of the Industrial Revolution’s conclusion; they have been exhausted before we even finished industrializing.

Industrial Mobilization Makes Cities the Center of Material Production 

Early modern Europe, while sharing many features typical of agricultural civilizations, also developed social technologies that lent themselves to an explosion of material production. One example was an ideological commitment to truth in speech among some aristocratic circles, exemplified by Britain’s Royal Society, whose Latin motto translates roughly to “take nobody’s word for it.” This commitment enabled advances in basic science by assigning high status to verifiable mathematics, empiricism, and experimentation. It further lent itself to honesty about the process of production. Another key social technology was the Protestant conception of friendship as expressed through the community of willing believers. Strangers could be trusted by default within this community, and thereby coordinate closely to form and run companies. Material factors like roads, canal networks, or good climate contribute to industrialization, but they don’t tell us about the social machinery that took advantage of them.

With a handshake and a reputation at stake, you could sail to the other end of the world, spending years out of contact with your business partners, yet secure in knowing they would honor their word. This trust at a distance provided the conditions for ocean-based commodity markets to beat regional commodity markets. After this material transformation, the plantations in the New World and workshops in India became logistically closer to a city than shepherds living in geographically nearby hills. Before this point, city-based labor markets had the highest impact on society, while the role of markets in exchanging the raw resources of the countryside for the finished products of the city was minor and easily replaced by customary trade. With the social technologies of long-distance commerce, the labor market of a city became connected to a commodity market that could match its pace, opening massive potential to make the city a center of material production....